A Ukrainian lawmaker is calling on President Petro Poroshenko to submit a promised draft law establishing a special anti-corruption court before the current parliamentary session concludes next week.
The call comes as Poroshenko's government, which in 2015 pledged to tackle entrenched corruption in exchange for a $17.5 billion aid package from the IMF, is increasingly accused of backsliding on promised reforms.
Kyiv pledged to pass a law creating the court by June 2018, but MPs have wrangled over wording of the reform, and last week Poroshenko promised to introduce a new bill to replace an existing draft that has languished in parliament.
On Tuesday, Justice Minister Pavlo Petrenko said Kyiv's government was aiming to set up the anti-corruption court in February and implement the law within six to eight months. But Hanna Hopko, head of the Ukrainian parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs, said that may not be fast enough.
Poroshenko, she told VOA's Ukrainian Service, "must use the last plenary week in this year to consider —i n the first reading — the draft law on establishing the anti-corruption court."
"I hope the president, as he promised last week, will submit immediately the draft law and with no delays, no invitation of process," said Hopko, who sits as an independent in parliament. "Sorry, but we have to run on this, we have to speed up."
Hopko's sense of urgency is driven by a series of dramatic street protests over the government's failure to deliver on their anti-corruption promises. With Russian-backed separatists still waging a low-intensity war in the east, and the Kremlin anxious to discredit the pro-Western government in Kyiv, Hopko fears the country's critics will seek to exploit any signs of instability.
Moving quickly to establish the court, she said, would alleviate those concerns, allowing Kyiv to continue securing aid from the IMF while countering the assumption that the fledgling pro-Western government isn't capable addressing internal corruption and domestic political strife.
Dramatic, interrelated events
Witnessing the first sustained wave of anti-government protests in Kyiv since the 2014 Maidan protests ousted Kremlin-backed President Viktor Yanukovych, Poroshenko's majority Solidarity party recently voted to dismiss an opposition lawmaker as chairman of parliament's anti-corruption committee, which is empowered to select candidates to oversee the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU).
NABU's investigators, who have received logistical support and training from the United States and European Union as part of the financial and diplomatic backing for the post-Maidan government, are tasked with ferreting out government graft.
Many Ukrainians see the investigators as the country's only independent anti-corruption watchdogs. Critics of Poroshenko's party called the vote an overt attempt by the ruling coalition to undermine NABU's authority and assign a politically pliant auditor.
"It seems like for corrupted kleptocratic elites, it's very dangerous to have truly independent anti-corruption institutions," Hopko said of the vote, which came less than two days before a botched attempt to arrest Mikheil Saakashvili — a former Georgian president who became regional governor of Odessa in February 2015 — who has spearheaded anti-corruption rallies in Kyiv for months.
Saakashvili was released from detention on Monday, after a judge rejected Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko's motion to place Saakashvili under house arrest for allegedly financing opposition political activities by conspiring with fugitive Ukrainian oligarch Serhiy Kurchenko — an ally of the ousted Yanukovych, who now lives in self-imposed exile in Russia.
Saakashvili denies knowing Kurchenko and calls the charges a politically motivated fabrication to keep him from seeking public office in Ukraine.
Adrian Karatnycky, a non-resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council's Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center, told VOA's Ukrainian Service that the charges against Saakashvili, whether true or false, have the power upend the established political order.
An either-or situation
Either Saakashvili is the victim of "the largest libel in Ukraine's history" or he has allowed his "thirst for power and political influence" to lead him to treachery, Karatnycky said.
For Hopko, however, the war of words between Saakashvili and the prosecutors is beside the point.
"This is a very fragile moment, and there are red lines where, by crossing them, you are not just discrediting the institution, you are discrediting the state in general," she said. "I think it's really important—both for Mr. Saakashvili and the prosecutor — to follow the rule of law in Ukraine."
It makes no difference, she said, whether a grassroots political group such as Saakashvili's Movement of New Forces is discredited for treason, or whether a state prosecutor is discredited for politically motivated enforcement of national law.
"It's really important for the general prosecutor's office to avoid self-discreditation by making mistakes and not being professional," she said in an apparent reference to Monday's court decision. "No matter who you are — activist, opposition leader, or president — you respect Ukrainian institutions."
Public skepticism about the integrity of Ukrainian state institutions, she added, risks promoting a narrative of political instability that can be exploited by "different external forces, which are interested in seeing Ukraine as a failed state with discredited institutions, with no trust from society and with a lot of protests."
Aside from calling for expedited legislation, Hopko is pushing to have NABU's wiretapping authorization approved by court warrant instead of security agencies, whose directors are politically appointed.
"We now we see competition between law enforcement and anti-corruption institutions," in terms of investigating prominent public figures, she said. "We must provide NABU the same opportunities to conduct investigation, having access even to wiretapping higher level politicians if there's a court-decision approval, according to Ukrainian law."
This story originated in VOA's Ukrainian Service. Some information is from Reuters.